A mystery within a mystery, the enigmatic Snake-Head dynasty dominated part of the Maya world during the seventh century CE, only to inexplicably disappear shortly before the collapse of the Mayan civilization itself. More than a century since archaeologists discovered the first shreds of evidence pointing to the existence of this powerful ruling family, excavations in Belize may now have yielded a missing piece of the puzzle, finally filling in the gaps in the story.
Described in the The Precolumbian Art Research Institute Journal, the latest finding consists of a series of stone panels covered in hieroglyphs that allude to a dramatic civil war between two half-brothers, leading to a split in the Snake-Head dynasty and resulting in its relocation from its original seat in Dzibanche to Calakmul, both of which are in the Yucatan Peninsula in Southern Mexico.
The panels were discovered in the summer of 2016, alongside a large tomb at the ruins of Xunantunich in Belize. Aside from being one of the largest Maya graves discovered in the region, the surrounding temple is also highly unusual in that it appears to have been constructed for the sole purpose of housing the tomb, whereas the vast majority of Maya burial sites are thought to have been dug into pre-existing temples.
Archaeologist Jorge Can uncovering the stone panels at Xunantunich. Kelsey Sullivan / The Precolumbian Art Research Institute Journal
Described as a muscular male in his twenties, the occupant of the grave remains as yet unidentified, although researchers believe he may have been the ruler of the site at some point in the seventh century.
The panels are thought to be part of a larger monument that was erected in the year 642 by K’an II, king of a city called Caracol, which was loyal to the Snake-Head dynasty. The monument tells the tale not only of the dynasty’s rise, but also Caracol’s military victories over the neighboring city of Naranjo in 626 and 631.
In 680, however, Naranjo had its revenge, defeating Caracol and dispersing the stone panels throughout its allied settlements. Researchers had previously discovered some of these stones at Naranjo itself, where they appeared to have been deliberately rearranged in order to distort the story of Caracol’s previous victories. Archaeologists have therefore been playing catch-up ever since, as they attempt to recover the missing stones and fill in the gaps in the Snake-Head tale.
Having now discovered the panels at Xunantunich, researchers believe they finally have the full story, complete with all its dramatic twists and turns. According to the hieroglyphs, the dynasty was ruled by a king called Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan during its final days at Dzibanche. However, a figure named Yukno’m, who may have been the king's half-brother, rose to prominence as the head of a rival faction, fighting under the same Snake-Head emblem as his sibling.
This sparked a split in the ranks of the dynasty, ultimately leading to its relocation to Calakmul, under the rule of Yukno’m. It was after this that the family began to spread its tentacles throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, taking over a number of neighboring settlements and establishing itself as a major political and military force.
In discovering these missing pieces of the puzzle, the researchers have finally undone the work of Naranjo’s rulers, whose symbolic censoring of Caracol’s victories also condemned the Snake-Head dynasty to historical obscurity. As such, the study authors state that “whereas the intention of Naranjo kings may have been to silence a glorious part of Caracol’s history, we are incredibly fortunate to be able to pick up the pieces and reconstruct much of this once forgotten history.”
The Hieroglyoh-covered panels tell the story of sibling rivalry and civil war within the Snake-Head dynasty. Christophe Helmke / The Precolumbian Art Research Institute Journal